07 November 2010

Howards End Discussion

I don't know why I should be so surprised that upon reading Howards End I find I am a romantic. Not in the sense of Mr. Bast and his compartmentalize Romance, but more of the modern day version like seeing the developing relationship of Meg and Mr. Wilcox and wishing for their lasting happiness.
From Chapter 20: "But as she put on her hat she burst out laughing. Love was a unlike the article served up in books: the joy, though genuine, was different; the mystery an unexpected mystery."
Ahh. This rings so true to me.

I got off on the right foot with Helen and her letters to her sister. First she is in love, then whoops! No, she's not. That whole story might have annoyed me if it weren't for the reason: Paul's reaction to her the next morning. Scared! Men who are scared of what their family will think, I have known a few. It is very tiring. To strong-willed women at any time of history or even today, men who fear their fathers or are too stupid to think for themselves (as Charles often appears) are hopeless. And if you think you can change a male who is that way, you are wrong! How sharp of Helen to run the other way.

Although I don't have a sister and I will never really know sisterly love, I felt the relationship between the Schlegel women to be true through to the end. Mrs. Bast seemed like a plot device as did their Aunt Juley. But I suppose we have all known some people in superficial ways, and I wouldn't say my meddling neighbor is a plot device in my life, but I could.

I wish someone would defend Mr. Bast. I think he was sort of crazy. There's probably a historical reason for his actions being London and industrial and his desire to improve himself. The sister's claimed they were thinking of his well-being, but it certainly seemed to me that they were making him a bit of a pet. It seemed Tibby was their pet too, but less so, and he was detached, probably because he was raised without a mother's love.

Much of the prose in the book went to describing the beauty and ugliness of England which movies can do with one good brush stroke, so I lucked out when I discovered it was on television one weekend. I've seen it before in the theater years ago. It came on in the afternoon with no commercials, no breaks for 2 1/2 hours. Vanessa Redgrave's performance was way over-the-top. (She played the first Mrs. Wilcox.) However Anthony Hopkins's Mr. Wilcox was perfection.

Midway through the book I started to think of each character was an element of a whole being. Helen, the idealistic youth; Leonard Bast, the insecure dreamer; Dolly, the mouth without the brain; Margaret, the reasonable matron; and so on. I found this diminished my desire for the story, so I chucked that idea after a couple of chapters. It was as if I was watching myself read a book for the purpose of talking about what I was reading. Do you know what I mean? And is there any way to get around this when you know you have to say something and it better be in complete sentences?

At any rate, I loved the descriptions of the home and grounds at Howards End. I feel that some physical places can hold spirits of happiness.


  1. Eeee! I will hurry up and finish so I can read/contribute!

  2. My dear Amanda, I cannot believe I finished before you, my A plus contributor. Please feel free to trash my common observations. I need your insight. Regards, J

  3. I wouldn't think your observations are common, nor would I wish to trash them. :)

    This is a particular book club trap, I think: "It was as if I was watching myself read a book for the purpose of talking about what I was reading. Do you know what I mean?" So yes, I know what you mean.

    Anyway, here's what I thought about HE (below). It's not a cohesive argument or anything, and I couldn't help myself from reading stuff about the book while I was reading the book (or in such cases, procrastinating actually reading the book), so I can't say that I would have come to all the more sophisticated conclusions myself if I hadn't read some history. I hope you don't think that's cheating.

    Anyway, this one really made me think about a lot of different topics - it would have been a very good in-person discussion, with wine, of course!


    I watched the Merchant Ivory film based on Howard's End years ago, a VHS rental from our small town video store, so I knew how some of it would end, although I did forget that Leonard Bast would die in the end. The thing that truly struck me about the film, was how on earth the young, lithe, idealistic Margaret could go for old stick-in-the-mud Henry. This is probably partially owing to my own inexperience with sex; I was around 14 when I watched the film. But I wonder whether the film portrays that aspect of Margaret's desire - that her attraction is Henry as kind of a brute, masculine force? The novel certainly treats it that way, I felt. That Margaret, though she feels that Henry's denial of an inner life, along with his disregard for the lower classes and his preposterous priggishness regarding sex and money, still has something to offer her, which is lacking from her life, and as an end, that her influence can improve his character.

    It's condescending to consider that one's influence will "improve" another person, but regardless, maybe some people really are better than other people, and why shouldn't the latter be given the opportunity to improve?

    Forster intended to write the book as a description of middle class warfare in England, with the Basts at the lower end, and the Wilcoxes at the upper. Howard's End symbolizes England - the land, property rights - and Ruth Wilcox, the descendent of noble yeoman stock, the spiritual owner. In the end, the result of the union of three classes of people represented, the poor middle class, the intellectual bourgeois, and the worker bee plutocrats, is the one who shall "inherit England," or, Howard's End - Margaret and Leonard's child.

    While I found all the class commentary and Forster's solutions to be interesting, as well as still applicable today, the thing that particularly interested me about the novel was the respect that the author seemed to have for his heroines. He imbues Margaret and Helen with intelligence, wit, strong-mindedness, and principles. Sure, Margaret will go along with Henry's rude abrupt ending of her vacation in Swanage with Aunt Juley, but it's only because she's humoring him. She's compromising to make up for his character flaws. But when she demands that Charles stop the car so that she can examine the animal that has been injured in the road, and upon being ignored, JUMPS out of the car anyway, I nearly cheered aloud for her.

    Is there anything more frustrating than being ignored or physically controlled? I can't think of either state without feeling enraged.

    She then downplayed the incident to Henry, who in his sexism, blames it on feminine hysterics. I felt disappointed that Margaret didn't say to Henry the Edwardian English version of "Motherfucker didn't stop when I told him to!" but it must account for her patience with Henry.

  4. (pt. 2)

    The moment when I truly fell in love with Margaret, though, was when she stood in front of the door at Howard's End, and protected her very pregnant sister from being harassed by Henry and Mr. Mansbridge, defying male authority, and that parallel male authority, "doctor's orders." "For one sensible remark I will let you in. But you cannot make it. You would trouble my sister for no reason. I will not permit it. I'll stand here all day sooner."

    How different that action is, from the normal progression of females teaming with the males, against other females, because they are rewarded some pittance of approval, or privilege within limits set by males, and they cannot conceive of any greater happiness or freedom in a world outside of that structure. This is something that I have felt and thought about ever since college, when I was rewarded with more girlfriends than I'd ever had, by virtue of choosing an all-girls college, almost accidentally. "I will not be afraid of women," went a verse from a song by indie singer Dar Williams, in that era, and I always think about that when others seem to encourage sexist gossip or slut-shaming of other women. Not that I'm such a good, superior person all the time, or even most of the time - but I try, at least.

    Of course, Margaret's stated reason is affection, not Feminist sisterhood, but that doesn't matter to me as a reader, after the message has already been conveyed.

  5. (pt. 3)

    Leonard Bast is frustrating as a character, maybe because Forster seemed to create him as pathetic and seemingly doomed to begin with. Leonard wants poetry and adventure and culture, but Forster writes these as the pursuits of a fool who doesn't know his own place, rather than as honorable attempts of self-improvement. One of the essays at the beginning of my edition of the book wonders whether Forster, though an idealist and a humanist, simply could not create a well-rounded character from a class with which he had little personal knowledge. Perhaps that was true; I felt, while reading, that Leonard's point of view is not Leonard's point of view, but the gritty descriptions of someone looking down on Leonard's life. He is destroyed by the carelessness of the upper middle class, in Henry, and by the carefulness of the intellectuals, in Helen and Margaret. But his child is to inherit England. So Forster sees neglect in both carelessness and carefulness, whereas there is a future with the balance of socially liberal intellectuals and capitalism, a future in which Leonard's kind no longer need to exist and suffer. I guess.

    I think I disagree with Forster about Leonard, and I find his reasoning for Leonard's rejection of Helen's money to convenient to the telling of the story, and insulting to Leonard as a character. Not knowing whether Helen has given him all of her wealth (which she nearly has), he rejects her 5000 pounds, as "such a sum meant nothing to him." As if Leonard were indeed too simple to see what happiness could be attained at 5000 pounds richer than begging one's family for cash piecemeal. Margaret argues early on that - something that I've always agreed with - money truly does buy happiness. (In my personal experience, I think much more fondly on the parts of my life that have been the happiest, and not coincidentally, these times coincided with the times that I got a better job, got a raise, got a great tax rebate, when I wasn't sick with worry and tears about paying my bills and my rent on time. Money doesn't buy happiness? Bullshit, I say! Obviously, you have your depressed folks who happen to be well off, and it doesn't mean that if you have money, you are happy every second of the day. But it sure as hell means that you are happier more often. I further argue that anyone who disagrees doesn't truly know what it's like to struggle without money!)

    Which seems to demonstrate that Margaret's dissenters were correct - that giving Leonard a huge amount of cash would pauperize him rather than endow him with agency. Because he rejects the money, and prefers to beg from his family, rather than look for work. But it doesn't fit my knowledge of the human spirit. Maybe if Leonard was so broken, that he desperately preferred to suffer, then would make sense. And if so, Forster ought to have rounded out that aspect of his character more fully.

    Although, even if he had accepted the money, perhaps, struck with guilt over the affair, he still would have ended up under a bookcase at Howard's End. That's some cynical symbolism there - being killed with the instruments of one's cultural hopes and aspirations. Mean Forster!


Thanks for sharing!